Why bother to reflect when ELT market values spontaneity?

Until not so long ago, ‘good’ teaching was as much about spontaneity as it was about knowledge of the language and teaching skills. In the view of many a layperson and professional alike, the definition of a ‘good’ teacher went inasmuch as it equated with the ability to teach ‘off the cuff.’ This misconception (or is it?) had so deeply penetrated nation-wide that drove teacher trainers towards discouraging teachers from taking along with them into the classroom their lesson plans or even a copy of the coursebook. Likewise, directors of studies tended to recruit those with the ability to teach English blindfold, i.e. to teach unseen material impromptu. The fact is that even today ELT market has a marked tendency to give employment priority to spontaneous teachers who are also ‘Jacks of all trades’ and can adapt themselves to any course in no time. While the idea and thinking behind all this sound convincing, there arises a contradiction: If, by today’s standards, ‘reflective teaching’ is preferred over other models of teacher development such as ‘theory to practice’ and ‘apprenticeship’ and is seen as an integral part of a teacher’s professional development, how is it that the market is after impulsive teachers? Before directly addressing this question, it might be worthwhile to consider the following:

  • Reflective teaching of a lesson, according to Thornbury (2006), means to ‘think back on it, in order to understand it better, and to take steps to improve it.’ This is done through experience, trial and error, critical analysis, and discussion with peers or senior teachers. Reflection, thus, is a conscious-raising device used by teachers at any stage in their careers in order to develop. As such, it is simply a never-ending process, cycle to be more precise, and has no set ‘method.’
  • While most teachers are encouraged to keep a diary or journal, it is not the only way one could practice ‘reflective teaching.’ Photographs from classrooms, videotaped or recorded lessons, peer and senior remarks, and personal comments either in writing or in the form of an ‘interview with myself,’ verbally recorded in a digital portfolio or scrapbook, can serve the purpose.
  • Reflection, contrary to popular belief, is not only a post-lesson activity. In fact, teachers are constantly reflecting on what they do pre-, while, and post-lesson. It is also interesting to know that most teachers are always analysing their performance and planning through self-talk.
  • Even in the most impulsive of moments, we act based on some sort of unconscious or subconscious input we have received and the thought we have given it in an earlier occasion. A personal example could be my bringing into the classroom the following mathematical formula to teach the present perfect continuous:

    ∫ [yesterday-now] (I was writing an essay) dt = I have been writing an essay since yesterday.

    Though the initiative seemed to be on an impulse, there was beneath it my years of constant search for alternates to the old-fashioned timeline in and out of the classroom.

In the light of the above, we may come to re-think spontaneity in ELT. A spontaneous -or impulsive- teacher, therefore, is not one who goes unplanned, rather one who has extensive experience teaching diverse classes using various approaches and techniques inasmuch as she/he can make quicker decisions by resorting to prior experience of any sort and then associating the links. This type of teacher has in fact been so reflective and preoccupied, be it formally down on paper or casually during a party, for instance, that she/he is prepared to show flexibility and creativity in any scenario. It is no wonder, then, why there is no entry on ‘impulsive teaching’ in any dictionary of ELT or linguistic terms as virtually all teachers ‘think back and forth’ in one way or another. And this is the answer to the question ‘Why do employers look for teachers with the ability to act spontaneously?’ These teachers, if successful and on the course of development, are by and large the most reflective.

Nevertheless, there is a pitfall to avoid. However spontaneous, teachers must opt for recording a documented portfolio. Besides substantial benefits this portfolio can bring with it (e.g. a resource of teaching material; a rich, documented CV; a self-taught course in CPD; etc.), it can structure one’s thoughts and reveal their cognitive processes. Ur (2012) quotes E.M Froster as asking ‘How can I know what I think until I see what I say?’ And then how can we discuss it with others if we do not know what it exactly is, how it works, and how it can be developed?

The long and short of it is that without a recorded, documented portfolio for systematic reflection, most of us, as Penny Ur says, will end up being teachers ‘with one year’s experience repeated twenty times.’ Something we, even the most spontaneous of us, may not want.

Thornbury, S. (2006). An A-Z of ELT: A dictionary of terms and concepts. (A. Underhill, Ed.) Oxford: MacMillan Education.
Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching (second ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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